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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Civil War Photographer Mathew Benjamin Brady

Mathew Benjamin Brady, one of the earliest photographers in American history and best known for his scenes of the American Civil War, dies in New York City on January 15, 1896.

Brady leaves little record of his life before photography. Speaking to the press in the last years of his life, he states that he was born between 1822 and 1824 in Warren County, New York, near Lake George. He is the youngest of three children to Irish immigrant parents, Andrew and Samantha Julia Brady. In official documents before and during the war, however, he claims to have been born in Ireland.

At age 16, Brady moves to Saratoga, New York, where he meets portrait painter William Page and becomes Page’s student. In 1839, the two travel to Albany, New York, and then to New York City, where he continues to study painting with Page, and also with Page’s former teacher, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse had met Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in France in 1839, and returned to the United States to enthusiastically push the new daguerreotype invention of capturing images. At first, Brady’s involvement was limited to manufacturing leather cases that hold daguerreotypes. But soon he becomes the center of the New York artistic colony that wishes to study photography. Morse opens a studio and offers classes. Brady is one of the first students.

In 1844, Brady opens his own photography studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York, and by 1845, he begins to exhibit his portraits of famous Americans, including the likes of Senator Daniel Webster and poet Edgar Allan Poe. In 1849, he opens a studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., where he meets Juliet Handy, whom he marries in 1850 and lives with on Staten Island. His early images are daguerreotypes, and he wins many awards for his work. In the 1850s ambrotype photography becomes popular, which gives way to the albumen print, a paper photograph produced from large glass negatives most commonly used in American Civil War photography.

In 1850, Brady produces The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a portrait collection of prominent contemporary figures. The album, which features noteworthy images including the elderly Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage, is not financially rewarding but invites increased attention to his work and artistry. In 1854, Parisian photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri popularizes the carte de visite and these small pictures rapidly become a popular novelty, with thousands being created and sold in the United States and Europe.

At first, the effect of the American Civil War on Brady’s business is a brisk increase in sales of cartes de visite to departing soldiers. He readily markets to parents the idea of capturing their young soldiers’ images before they might be lost to war by running an ad in The New York Daily Tribune. However, he is soon taken with the idea of documenting the war itself. He first applies to an old friend, General Winfield Scott, for permission to have his photographers travel to the battle sites, and eventually, he makes his application to President Abraham Lincoln himself. Lincoln grants permission in 1861, with the proviso that Brady finance the project himself.

His efforts to document the American Civil War on a grand scale by bringing his photographic studio onto the battlefields earns Brady his place in history. His first popular photographs of the conflict are at the First Battle of Bull Run, in which he gets so close to the action that he barely avoids capture. While most of the time the battle has ceased before pictures are taken, he comes under direct fire at the First Battle of Bull Run, Petersburg, and Fredericksburg.

Brady also employs Alexander Gardner, James Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, William Pywell, George N. Barnard, Thomas C. Roche, and seventeen other men, each of whom is given a traveling darkroom, to go out and photograph scenes from the American Civil War. He generally stays in Washington, D.C., organizing his assistants and rarely visiting battlefields personally.

This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that Brady’s eyesight has begun to deteriorate in the 1850s. Many of the images in Brady’s collection are, in reality, thought to be the work of his assistants. He is criticized for failing to document the work, though it is unclear whether it is intentional or due simply to a lack of inclination to document the photographer of a specific image. Because so much of his photography is missing information, it is difficult to know not only who took the picture, but also exactly when or where it was taken.

In October 1862 Brady opens an exhibition of photographs from the Battle of Antietam in his New York gallery, titled The Dead of Antietam. Many images in this presentation are graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation new to America. This is the first time that many Americans see the realities of war in photographs, as distinct from previous “artists’ impressions.”

Brady, through his many paid assistants, takes thousands of photos of American Civil War scenes. Much of the popular understanding of the Civil War comes from these photos. There are thousands of photos in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress taken by him and his associates. The photographs include Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and soldiers in camps and battlefields. The images provide a pictorial cross reference of American Civil War history. He is not able to photograph actual battle scenes, as the photographic equipment in the day is still in the infancy of its technical development and requires that a subject be still for a clear photo to be produced.

Following the conflict, a war-weary public loses interest in seeing photos of the war, and Brady’s popularity and practice decline drastically.

During the war, Brady spends over $100,000 (equivalent to $1,691,000 in 2020) to create over 10,000 plates. He expects the U.S. government to buy the photographs when the war ends. When the government refuses to do so he is forced to sell his New York City studio and go into bankruptcy. The United States Congress grants Brady $25,000 in 1875, but he remains deeply in debt. The public was unwilling to dwell on the gruesomeness of the war after it has ended, and so private collectors are scarce.

Depressed by his financial situation and loss of eyesight, and devastated by the death of his wife in 1887, Brady dies penniless in the charity ward of Presbyterian Hospital in New York City on January 15, 1896, from complications following a streetcar accident. His funeral is financed by veterans of the 7th New York Infantry Regiment. He is buried in the Congressional Cemetery, which is located in Barney Circle, a neighborhood in the Southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C.

Brady photographs 18 of the 19 American presidents from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley. The exception is the 9th President, William Henry Harrison, who dies in office three years before Brady starts his photographic collection. He photographs Abraham Lincoln on many occasions. His Lincoln photographs have been used for the $5 bill and the Lincoln penny. One of his Lincoln photos is used by the National Bank Note Company as a model for the engraving on the 90c Lincoln Postage issue of 1869.

(Pictured: “Mathew B. Brady,” oil on canvas by Charles Loring Elliott, 1857, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)


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Birth of Sculptor Jerome Connor

jerome-connorJerome Connor, recognized world-class Irish sculptor, is born on February 23, 1874 in Coumduff, Annascaul, County Kerry.

In 1888, Connor emigrates to Holyoke, Massachusetts. His father is a stonemason, which leads to Connor’s jobs in New York as a sign painter, stonecutter, bronze founder and machinist. Inspired by his father’s work and his own experience, he would steal his father’s chisels as a child and carve figures into rocks.

It is believed Connor possibly assisted in the manufacture of bronzes such as the Civil War monument in Town Green in South Hadley, Massachusetts erected in 1896 and The Court of Neptune Fountain at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., completed in 1898.

Connor joins the Roycroft arts community in 1899 where he assists with blacksmithing and later starts creating terracotta busts and reliefs. Eventually he is recognized as Roycroft’s sculptor-in-residence.

After four years at Roycroft, Connor then works with Gustav Stickley and becomes well known as a sculptor being commissioned to create civic commissions in bronze for placement in Washington, D.C., Syracuse, East Aurora, New York, San Francisco, and in his native Ireland. In 1910, he establishes his own studio in Washington, D.C. From 1902 until his death, he produces scores of designs ranging from small portrait heads to relief panels to large civic commissions realized in bronze.

Connor is a self-taught artist who is highly regarded in the United States where most of his public works can be seen. He appears to be heavily influenced by the work of Irish American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He uses the human figure to give expression to emotions, values and ideals. Many of the commissions he receives are for civic memorials and secular figures which he casts in bronze, a pronounced departure from the Irish tradition of stone carved, church sponsored works.

Connor’s best known work is Nuns of the Battlefield located at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue NW, M Street and Connecticut Avenue NW in Washington, D.C. It serves as a tribute to the over six hundreds nuns who nursed soldiers of both armies during the American Civil War, and is one of two monuments in the District that represent women’s roles in the Civil War. The sculpture is authorized by the United States Congress on March 29, 1918 with the agreement that the government will not fund it. The Ancient Order of Hibernians raises $50,000 for the project and Connor is selected since he focuses on Irish Catholic themes, being one himself. Connor, however, ends up suing the Order for nonpayment.

Connor works in the United States until 1925 at which time he moves to Dublin and opens his own studio but suffers from lack of financial support and patrons. In 1926 he is contacted by Roycroft and asked to design and cast a statue of Elbert Hubbard who, with his wife Alice, had died in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. It is unveiled in 1930 and today stands on the lawn of East Aurora’s Middle School across the street from the Roycroft Chapel building.

While working on the Hubbard statue, Connor receives a commission to create a memorial for all the RMS Lusitania victims. It is to be erected in Cobh, County Cork where many of the victims are buried. The project is initiated by the New York Memorial Committee, headed by William Henry Vanderbilt whose father, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, perished on the RMS Lusitania. He dies before the memorial is completed and based on Connor’s design its installation falls to another Irish artist.

Jerome Connor dies on August 21, 1943 of heart failure and reputably in poverty. There is a now a “Jerome Connor Place” in Dublin and around the corner there is a plaque in his honour on Infirmary Road, overlooking Dublin’s Phoenix Park, his favourite place.


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Birth of Maurice Walsh, Author of “The Quiet Man”

maurice-walshMaurice Walsh, Irish novelist best known for the short story The Quiet Man which is later made into an Oscar-winning movie, is born on April 21, 1879 in Ballydonoghue near Listowel, County Kerry.

Walsh is the third child of ten and the first son born to John Walsh, a local farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Buckley who live in a three-room thatched farmhouse. John Walsh’s main interests are books and horses and he himself does little work about the farm, preferring to have a hired man. The most famous of these hired men is Paddy Bawn Enright, whose name is immortalised by Walsh in his story The Quiet Man, although the name is not used in the later motion picture. John Walsh passes on to his son not only a love of books but also legends and folk tales that are later featured of many of Walsh’s books.

Walsh goes to school in Lisselton, a mile or so up the road from Ballydonoghue, and later goes to St. Michael’s College in Listowel to prepare for the Civil Service examination. He enters the service on July 2, 1901 as an Assistant Revenue Officer in the Customs and Excise Service. He is posted to Scotland before the year is out and, although he subsequently has a number of postings outside Scotland, he spends most of his time there while in the British service.

Walsh has a life-long interest in writing and, during his early years in Scotland, this interest starts to bear fruit. He submits some of his stories and has two published in the Irish Emerald in 1908. Later that year, on August 8, 1908, Walsh marries Caroline Begg in Dufftown, Banffshire, Scotland.

When the Irish Free State is formed in 1922, Walsh transfers to its excise service and moves to Dublin. Fighting is still going on there at the time and he leaves his family in Scotland until it is safe for them to join him in 1923. The story The Key Above the Door is written during the months of separation although it is not published until some years later, appearing first in Chambers Journal as a serial between December 1925 and May 1926 and then in book form, published by W & R Chambers Ltd., in July 1926.

Sales of Walsh’s books grow steadily, especially in the wake of an unsolicited and generous letter from J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, praising The Key Above the Door, which Chambers is subsequently able to use on dust covers of Walsh’s books.

Walsh retires from government service in 1933 but his success as a writer continues. In that same year he sells a story to The Saturday Evening Post, then a well-known weekly magazine published in the United States. That story, later to be incorporated in the collection of stories published under the title Green Rushes, is The Quiet Man.

Director John Ford reads the story in 1933 and soon purchases the rights to it for $10. Walsh is paid another $2,500 when Republic Pictures buys the idea and receives a final payment of $3,750 when the film is actually made. Filming commences on June 7, 1951 with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in the leading roles. All of the outdoor scenes are shot on location in County Mayo and County Galway. The inside scenes are filmed in late July at the Republic Studios in Hollywood. The Quiet Man wins the Academy Award for Best Director for John Ford, his fourth, and for Best Cinematography.

Walsh becomes President of the Irish branch of PEN International in 1938 and visits the United States for an international meeting that year as the Irish delegate. His wife Caroline is able to accompany him although she has been in failing health for some years and ultimately dies in January 1941. Walsh himself dies on February 18, 1964 in Blackrock, a suburb of Dublin, and is buried in the Esker cemetery at Lucan, County Dublin. President Éamon de Valera attended Walsh’s funeral Mass.

In 2013, The Quiet Man is selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”